While some people succeed at flirting, others fail spectacularly when it comes to chatting someone up.
But a study by a team of researchers in Norway has found women want men who are generous and committed, while humour is the strongest flirting weapon for everyone.
Men apparently prefer a woman who appears sexually available and laughs at their jokes.
“What’s most effective depends on your gender and whether the purpose of the flirtation is a long-term or short-term relationship,” said Leif Edward Ottesen Kennair, a professor at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology’s (NTNU) Department of Psychology.
Prof Kennair belongs to a research group that has studied flirting in Norway and the USA and what people believe are effective tactics – and for whom and in what context.
The research group came from NTNU and from Bucknell University in Pennsylvania and State University of New York at Oswego.
“Flirting involves different signals that people send to each other. It’s done to attract potential partners,” said Prof Kennair.
“Men and women both flirt to get the attention of a desired partner, and perhaps to achieve a sexual or romantic result from it.”
Co-author T Joel Wade, a presidential professor of psychology at Bucknell University, added: “Flirting can be done verbally as well as non-verbally.”
Women who just want a short-lived fling from flirting need to signalise this clearly to the potential partner, according to the study.
Friendly contact like hugging or a kiss on the cheek doesn’t work in that context.
“People consider signals that you’re sexually available to be the most effective for women who are looking for a short-term relationship,” said Prof Kennair.
A completely different tactic works in another mating context, however.
The study shows “signs of generosity and a willingness to commit works best for men who are looking for a long-term relationship,” said Professor Mons Bendixen, another co-author.
Men who want to keep a partner for a longer period of time, perhaps for life, should not come across as stingy, ungenerous or as someone who prefers to change partners frequently, the researchers said.
But the most powerful weapon in the flirtation arsenal is humour, which is said to almost always works to some degree for everyone.
“People think that humour, or being able to make another person laugh, is most effective for men who are looking for a long-term relationship,” said Prof Kennair.
“It’s least effective for women who are looking for a one-night stand – but laughing or giggling at the other person's jokes is an effective flirtation tactic for both sexes.”
“It is not only effective to be funny, but for women it is very important that you show your potential partner that you think they are funny,” Professor Rebecca Burch, a co-author from SUNY Oswego, US, added.
The researchers suggested humour was something everyone should put in their flirting toolkit – but maybe shouldn’t start with it.
“Smiling and eye contact are important,” said Prof Kennair. “Then you can build your flirting skills from that base, using more advanced tactics.”
The scientists found flirting was largely the same in the US and Norway.
Flirting is only culturally dependent to a lesser extent, such as in people’s body language, the initial contact and in the degree of generosity, they said.
This indicates that effective flirting is largely universal which is not surprising since the motivations for finding a mate are partly biological, said Prof Wade.
However, this also shows that people fine tune their flirting techniques depending on what is emphasised in their culture, which is a smart, flexible strategy, Prof Burch added.
The researchers surveyed close to 1,000 students in Norway and the USA.
The participants rated how effective 40 different types of flirting were for a long-term or a short-term relationship, and whether the flirter was male or female. Participants were randomly assigned to the four versions of the questionnaire.
The researchers took into account the participants’ extroversion, age, religiosity, how willing the person was to have a relationship and “mate value”, that is, how attractive you are in the dating market.
“Individual differences in age, religiosity, extroversion, personal attractiveness and preferences for short-term sexual relationships had little or no effect on how effective respondents considered the various flirting tactics to be,” said Prof Bendixen.
Our personality may therefore appear to be less relevant in how we make judgments of the flirting behaviour in others.
“However, we do believe that personal characteristics affect the type of flirting people employ themselves,” he added.
The study was published in the journal Evolutionary Psychology.